23 Jan Climate, ESG, and the Egalitarian State of Nature
Longtime readers know that we…wait, wait, wait. Who are we kidding? Anyone who has been around here for more than a cup of coffee knows that we have a tendency to quote ourselves, A LOT, and usually in LONG chunks.
There’s a reason for this, and it’s not because we think we’re especially brilliant. Rather, we’re impatient and obsessive. And in practice, that means that we hate rewriting things. We never write them as well the second (or third) time around, and it drives us nuts. So…it’s easier and less frustrating just to quote ourselves.
We mention this today because we’re going to do it again momentarily.
You see, last week, while the Masters of the Universe planned out our dismal futures in Davos, we couldn’t help but be reminded of one of the most important and timeless discussions in one of our all-time favorite books, Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium. It’s not just that John Kerry and his friends all flew in their private jets to Davos to complain about how the poors are destroying the climate. It’s also that events around the world, some of which were undoubtedly scheduled to coincide with the Davos meeting, confirmed the millenarian nature of the global climate campaign.
Consider, for example, the arrest/detainment/Hollywood audition of climate crusader Greta Thunberg. Young Ms. Thunberg attended a protest at a coal strip mine in Lutzerath in Germany. The Germans, of course, need the coal mined at Lutzerath because they can’t buy Russian natural gas right now and they shut down most of their nuclear power generation last year. Greta, in turn, supports the Germans for shutting down nuclear – to which she is opposed – but is unhappy that they still want their homes heated and their lights to come on when they flip the switches. Selfish jerks. How dare they! (to coin a phrase).
Anyway, Greta protested. And she got herself arrested. Or she didn’t. And she staged the whole thing. Or she didn’t. Who knows? And frankly, who cares? The point is that she, like the German government she’s angry at, thinks that virtually carbon-free nuclear energy is as bad as coal and oil and gas … because … something … something … capitalism!
Likewise, last week, we saw this piece from The Economist in which the magazine’s business columnist marveled at the fact that aggressively conservative and anti-green Texas nevertheless produces far more carbon-free energy than does environmentalist basket-case California:
Wind power is abundantly harvested in states run by Republican governments and over land owned by climate-sceptic ranchers. The message they prefer is a more free-market one: that wind and solar are increasingly competitive sources of energy, help reduce electricity costs, foster entrepreneurship, and are no less American than oil and gas.
It is a surprisingly effective mantra. You might think that California, which talks a good game about climate change and green energy, is on the forefront of renewables development. But Texas is far ahead. According to a study commissioned by Mr Welch’s organization [Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation], in the second quarter of 2022 his home state had three times more wind, solar and battery storage under construction than California. The Energy Information Administration, a federal agency, predicts that this year the share of renewables in Texan power generation will for the first time exceed that of natural gas.
As our friend and fellow anti-ESG crusader Richard Morrison pointed out, Red States producing more renewable energy than Blue States was “probably inevitable” because “you’re actually allowed to build things there.” California isn’t anti-fossil fuels. It’s anti-EVERYTHING.
Additionally, there was this clip of Strive co-founder Vivek Ramaswamy adding a little bit of ideological detail to the discussion of nuclear energy and its rejection by climate change activists (like the aforementioned Greta Thunberg). Climate, Ramaswamy argues, is not really the target. Rather, climate is a Trojan Horse designed to get the warriors inside the city walls, allowing them to wage battle on their true enemies, the West and capitalism.
Taken in sum – and added to the Davos agenda – these three incidents reinforce our belief that climate activism, environmentalism, ESG, “Leftism” more broadly, are all part of a quasi-religious millenarian movement that has, at its heart, what Norman Cohn called “the Golden Age” myth. We know that it’s tempting to skip over long quotes or just to skim them. We do that ourselves. Nevertheless, this is good stuff, important stuff – not because we wrote it but because Norman Cohn postulated it, and it is as relevant today as it ever was:
One of the most persistent social myths in Western civilization is that which the historian Norman Cohn has termed the “egalitarian State of Nature,” which posits the belief that man’s natural, pre-historical state was a “Golden Age” “in which all men were equal in status and wealth and in which no one was oppressed or exploited by anyone else; a state of affairs characterized by universal good faith and brotherly love and also, sometimes, by total community of property and even spouses.”
The problem with this “Golden Age” (aside from the whole spouse-swapping thing) is that it is not merely one of the most persistent, but also one of the most pernicious social myths in all of Western thought. It is not only preposterous but dangerous. This irrational, fantastical belief in a utopian State of Nature underpinned the greatest threat to global civilization in the last century. And today it aides the new greatest threat to civilization by undermining the impulse to stop its deadly spread.
According to Professor Cohn, the myth of the egalitarian State of Nature is one of only a handful of “phantasies which have gone on to make up the revolutionary eschatology of Europe.” And like most of the other such “phantasies,” the State of Nature had its origins in ancient Greece and Rome and was modified and revised considerably by early and premedieval Christians. The myth made its first modern (or pre-modern) appearance in a work of literature in the late 13th century, in the epic poem Roman de la Rose by the Parisian poet Jean de Meun. According to Cohn, “no other vernacular work in the whole of medieval literature was so popular,” or so influential, and in it, Meun described the “Golden Age” of humanity thusly:
Once upon a time, in the days of our fathers and mothers, as the writings of the Ancients bear witness, people loved one another with a delicate and honest love, and not out of covetousness and lust for gain. Kindness reigned in the world.
There they danced and disported themselves in sweet idleness, simple quiet people who cared for nothing but to live joyously and in all friendship with one another. No king or prince had yet, like a criminal, snatched up what belonged to others. All were equals and had no private property of their own.
They knew well the maxim that love and authority never yet dwelt companionably together . . . The Ancients kept one another company, free from any bond or constraint, peaceably, decently; and they would not give up their liberty for all the gold in Arabia and in Phrygia.”
This myth of a pre-historical utopia is critical in Western thought and the development of Western civilization for at least a couple of different reasons. First, as Cohn notes, it was only natural that the egalitarian State of Nature would eventually give rise to the egalitarian Millennium; the social myth became a revolutionary myth over time as the “Golden Age irrecoverably lost in the distant past” was replaced by a Golden Age “preordained for the immediate future.”
From the 14th century on, the idea that human society was on the verge of a great revolution that would end the current mean state of affairs and return mankind to its natural, pre-historical condition, was ascendant in Western civilization. Many Reformation-era social upheavals, from the Hussite (Taborite) rebellion in Bohemia to Thomas Muntzer and the Peasant’s War in Germany, to militant Anabaptism throughout central Europe, were anarcho-communistic movements that assailed the powerful institutions of human society – the “prince,” the “rich,” and most notably, the Catholic Church – and promised their adherents the elimination of these “unnatural” institutions and a return to the true, egalitarian natural state.
Obviously, these movements served as the intellectual and spiritual precursors to later, post-Christian movements that also promised egalitarian utopias. As Cohn put it, “the old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one,” as the revolution against “the great ones” (i.e. “the powerful”) was revised to fi t a purely secular context. That is to say that the intellectual roots of the post-Enlightenment, quasi-religious radical egalitarian movements – from Utopian socialism right up to Marxism – can be traced backward through the early peasants’ revolts and the overtly religious eschatological rebellions right back to the State of Nature myth. The fundamental tenets of modern revolutionary egalitarianism, including the belief in the primacy of the struggle between “oppressed” and “oppressor” and the repudiation of religion, were hardly modern creations and, in fact, predated Marx by some four hundred years.
But the insidiousness of the myth of the State of Nature is hardly limited to the fantasies of communism and socialism. Would that it were so. The utopian State of Nature is also the foundation for the myth of the “noble savage.” Obviously, if an idyllic state exists or existed, someone had to inhabit it, and that someone was archetypical man, man uncorrupted by evils of materialism and modern society.
In the opening line of Emile, Jean Jacques Rousseau, the intellectual forefather of the modern left, declared that “Everything is good in leaving the hands of the creator of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Rousseau’s critique of modern society and his lionization of pre-societal man are, perhaps, his most consistent themes. They are also his most powerful and far-reaching contributions to political philosophy.
In The Second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau argued forcefully that private property was the source of society’s ills. “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, to whom it occurred to say this is mine, and found people sufficiently simple to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” More to the point, he argued that human existence in the absence of societal and societal contrivances was far nobler.
Observation fully confirms what reflection teaches us on this subject: Savage man and civilized man differ so much in their innermost heart and inclinations that what constitutes the supreme happiness of the one would reduce the other to despair. The first breathes nothing but repose and freedom, he wants only to live and remain idle, and even the Stoic’s ataraxia does not approximate his profound indifference to everything else. By contrast, the Citizen, forever active, sweats and scurries, constantly in search of ever more strenuous occupations: he works to the death, even rushes toward it in order to be in a position to live, or renounces life in order to acquire immortality. He courts the great whom he hates, and the rich whom he despises; he spares nothing to attain the honor of serving them; he vaingloriously boasts of his baseness and of their protection and, proud of his slavery, he speaks contemptuously of those who have not the honor of sharing it.
In the 19th century this conception of savage man as ideal man was literalized, expounded upon, and eventually became a staple of the intellectual case against European imperialism. In the 20th Century, Rousseau’s intellectual heirs continued to romanticize primitive man, and, indeed, they made his inherent righteousness a fundamental component of their self-loathing critique of Western society.
Much of the left’s attack on Western civilization is premised on the idea that the institutions of society – and Western society in particular – are inherently corrupting. The revolt against globalization, the neo-Luddite attack on modern technology (most especially the attack on the internal combustion engine), the squishy left’s fascination with organic foods and opposition to “genetically modified organisms,” “back to nature communalism,” the incessant degradation of America and American actions and motives, the unrelenting and ill-informed charges of economic exploitation and neocolonialism, and the irrational and brutal assault on Christianity are all, at least in part, underpinned by the idea that modern Western society is, by its very definition, corrupt and corrupting.